The Playgoer: Insulting Times

Custom Search

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Insulting Times

By Steven Leigh Morris

The absurdity of our economic crisis and the way it's affecting the arts came to a head with a report I heard from one of our smaller chain newspapers. With budget cutbacks so dire, the paper has eliminated covering the arts with freelancers (with years of experience and some passion for the field) resorting instead to goading the few, remaining overwhelmed staff writers on the paper (crime-beat reporters, etc) to report on local gallery openings and stage premieres – people who, by their own admission, have little knowledge of, or interest in, the arts.

The policy is as insulting to the freelances and their accrued experience as it is to the arts organizations they once covered. But we live in insulting times.

The policy also raises the questions of who's qualified to be an arts critic, and is arts criticism even necessary. Amidst one of the most surreal election cycles in recent memory, as the snow caps continue to melt, is this just a debate about the need for dinosaurs?

I just returned to L.A. after five days in New York, in order to attend the first couple of rehearsals of my play, Beachwood Drive, that's being presented by Abingdon Theatre Company. It's been an almost three-year process of developing the script, three readings and a workshop, involving extensive rewrites and cuts. A number of emotions swept over me: the enormous privilege of having a play performed in New York (my first), where the intensity and clarity of purpose is like none I've seen elsewhere, and the fierce intelligence of the actors and producers -- yeah I saw Bullets Over Broadway, too, so maybe I just got lucky on this one.

Ten hours before I had to return to my home near Beachwood Drive in Hollywood, where the play is set, the actors were sitting around a table, reading through the play, with the director and some theater staff in the room, stopping for questions to the playwright before I had to head back to JFK on the E train.

In answering their questions, I felt like some PhD candidate defending a dissertation before a committee, and it was exhilarating. They were probing and tugging at the play's ligaments, trying discern the nature of their connections to the muscle. They were questioning time-lines, and the degree to which the reality of the play unfolded empirically or in a dream state.

One actress, responding to a significant cut I had made, presented a written case for restoring the cut. It was three pages and read like a legal document for dramaturgy, building an argument with allusions to the play's own references, its internal logic, its larger purpose and the consequences the cut would have on the play's internal rhythms.

Another actress asked exactly what Beachwood Drive looks like, the neighborhood, the ethnicities, the density of traffic, the quality and architecture of the homes. This was, in short, theater criticism at its best, driven by intense and relentless curiosity, an investigative impulse to open up the world of a play. There was judgment, but that wasn't the driving impulse, which was investigation, which is exactly what the best criticism aims for. That's when I understood how closely interlocked the creative and critical impulses are, intellect and emotion swirling around the room in a kind of dance.

That's when I thought of overworked staff crime reporters at a besieged L.A. newspaper being dragged to a play like this and asked to review it, for the sake of budget cuts.

The actors at Abingdon Theatre Company made a pretty good case for artists being among the most rigorous and qualified arts critics. Of course potential-conflict-of-interest concerns emerge, but are those issues any more dire than the complete elimination of positions at newspapers, or the employment of wildly unqualified and reluctant substitutes?

The snowcaps are melting. Maybe its time to change the rules a bit. Just a thought. We're talking about our survival here.


John Branch said...

If artists may be "among the most rigorous and qualified" arts critics, it's probably because of their training and their experience as well as whatever basic skills they have. But then, isn't that also true for journalist-reviewers and critics?

I'm not sure whether you're suggesting that a newspaper hire a between-roles actor to review a few shows or not. If you are, there's one important thing missing: the actor may not have much (or any) training and experience in writing. Apparently you were blessed in that cast you worked with in New York, and that actress who wrote the three-page argument may be prepared to take on a reviewing assignment, but I'm not sure about the others.

However, many or most staff writers at a newspaper probably don't have the background to equip them for reviewing either. Maybe if you could pair one of them with an actor...

Robert Axelrod said...

Steven's comment regarding the best criticism aims for investigation ought to be heeded by the plethora of bloggers in L.A. who have suddenly "hung out the shingle" calling themselves reviewers of theatre and film. These fledgling journalists can't even put a sentence together much less a review.

Thia said...

Mark Helprin said, "All a critic can do is say yes or no. . . and complicate it." Steven Leigh Morris is a very intelligent and committed critic, and when I am finished reading any review he has written, I have a very good idea about whether or not I want to spend my time and money seeing a particular production. Ultimately, THAT is what a review should be for, to guide us to productions worthy of our support, and various backgrounds can make a person suitable for that job, if they take it seriously. . . but I would rather trust an actor or playwright about theatre than a food critic, a sports writer, etc. There IS a value in being passionate about the subject one covers.